Roman de Fauvel  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Roman de Fauvel, translated as The Story of the Fawn-Colored Beast, is a 14th century French poem accredited to French royal clerk Gervais du Bus, though probably best known for its musical arrangement by Philippe de Vitry in the Ars Nova style. First published in Paris in 1314, the piece serves as an allegorical criticism of church and state, using the metaphor of a donkey becoming the ruler of his master's house upon a kind whim from Dame Fortune. The poem, though banned at the time for being seditious and heretical, was wildly successful and still copied into the 15th century. Twelve manuscripts have survived, many of which are in remarkably good condition, because they were stowed away securely due to their illegality.

Following in the literary tradition of the thirteenth century, the Roman de Fauvel is often compared with the Roman de la Rose.

The Roman de Fauvel is laden with allegories and political satire. The donkey's name, which when broken down forms fau-vel, or "veiled lie", also forms an acrostic in which each letter stands for one of the seven deadly sins: Flaterie (Flattery), Avarice (Greed), Vilanie (Guile), Variété (Inconstancy), Envie (Envy), and Lacheté (Cowardice).



Fauvel, an ambitious but foolish donkey, decides that he is unsatisfied with his residence in the stable and moves into the largest room of his master's house. Upon moving there, he changes it to suit his needs and has a custom hayrack built. Dame Fortune, the goddess of Fate, smiles upon Fauvel and appoints him leader of the house. Subsequently, Church and secular leaders from many places make pilgrimages to see him, and bow to him in servitude, symbolizing Church and state rulers quickly bowing to Sin and corruption.

Upon receiving Dame Fortune's smile, Fauvel travels to Macrocosmos and asks for her hand in marriage. She denies him, but in her stead she proposes he wed Lady Vainglory. Fauvel agrees, and the wedding takes place, with such guests present as Flirtation, Adultery, Carnal Lust, and Venus, in a technique similar to that of the Morality plays of the 15'th and 16'th centuries.

Finally, Dame Fortune reveals that Fauvel's role in the world is to give birth to more iniquitous rulers like himself, and to be the follower of the Antichrist, eventually to bring about the end of the world.


The musical accompaniment to Roman, mostly composed by Philippe de Vitry, is usually cited as the beginning of the Ars Nova movement. Though most of the pieces are based on plainchant, they vary greatly in terms of ornamentation and layering, with some being entirely monophonic, and other, more complex pieces being polyphonic and even sung in multiple languages. However the unifying characteristic of Roman is the use of the Isorhythm, which is a rhythmic pattern present in various voices of the piece at various times, though through the relative length of the isorhythm and its envolopment in the rest of the music, it is usually indiscernible to those not intimately familiar with the music. Literary and music critics have often claimed that the musical interpolations were chosen entirely randomly (Paris, 1898; Langfors, 1914; Gagnepain, 1996). However, more recent work has attempted to disprove this hypothesis, showing that the additions contributed by the BN146 are part to a larger artistic project with, beyond the political message, a religious purpose (Herbelot, 1998). Interestingly, the idea that this manuscript was more than an anthology was proposed back in 1935 by Emilie Dankh who gave us then a complete edition of the text of the BN146.

Although the text of the Roman de Fauvel is not particularly well known, the music has been frequently performed and recorded. The question of how the entire work would have been read or staged in the 14th century is the subject of academic debate. Some have suggested that BN146, the copy with additional 3000 verses and 169 musical pieces, could have been intended as a theatrical performance (Dankh, Herbelot). This hypothesis is of course in contradiction with the concurrent opinion that the Roman de Fauvel is mainly an anthology (Gagnepain).

Surviving copies

The copy designated BN146 is attributed to Chaillou de Pesstain. Its particular value resides in the additional 3000 verses and 169 musical pieces (56 in Latin and 113 in French) which constitute a veritable anthology of thirteenth and early fourteenth century music (this includes Latin and French liturgical and devotional, sacred and profane, monophonic and polyphonic, chant, old and new music). The BN146 has often been said to mark the beginning of the stylistic period Ars Nova.

The first recording of the work has been made in 1972 by the Studio der Fruehen Musik (Studio of Early Music) on the EMI Reflexe - label, directed by Thomas Binkley. This recording is currently available as part of a 5-CD box-set on the Virgin-label. The speaker of the verses uses the original old-French, including some now very odd-sounding pronouncing of -still familiar- French words. The musical interludes have some, especially for that time, poignant dissonances/counterpoint; which likely serve to illustrate the mocking nature of the whole Roman.


  • The English expression "to curry Fauvel", (now to "curry favor") arose from the scene in which potentates descended so low as to brush down the donkey and clean him off.

See also


  • Emma Dillon, Medieval Music-Making and the "Roman de Fauvel", Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-521-81371-9
  • Bernard Gagnepain, Histoire de la musique au Moyen Âge, tome II, Paris, Seuil, 1996.
  • Aurélie Herbelot, Étude des processus de la création - Roman de Fauvel de Chaillou de Pesstain - fr.146, Thèse de Maîtrise, Université de Savoie, 1998. link
  • Le Roman de Fauvel de Gervais du Bus, édition d'après tous les manuscrits existants par Arthur Långfors, Paris: Société des anciens textes français, 1914-1919.
  • Jean-Claude Mühlethaler, Fauvel au pouvoir. Lire la satire médiévale, Paris, Slatkine, 1994.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Roman de Fauvel" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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